What books do you reread?

When I’m asked that question, I don’t have an answer because I don’t reread books. I never have, other than for classes where a book was assigned that I’d already read/studied, such as Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. As a teenager, I read Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind a second time, but that was to prove I could read a fat book twice. These instances don’t count as an answer to that question, which is about revisiting a book you love, that is, about spending time again with familiar characters and plot as one would spend time with familiar friends.

Would I like to reread some books? Absolutely, and I’ve got a list, but it’s not for the guaranteed good read or joy of familiar friends. I want to reread them for the same reason I reread John Gardner’s Grendel last year — they are books I read scads of years ago and feel like I was too young to fully appreciate and understand them. Now, I’m curious about what I missed.

Below are the top five, waiting for a space of time to open up in the ever-present tsunami of new books being published.

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
Frequently referred to as the best comic novel of the 20th century, Lucky Jim tells the story of Jim Dixon, a medieval history lecturer at a nameless British university. NYRB Classics reissued the book last year, along with other Amis novels.
Why reread: I don’t remember laughing.

The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary
Another comedy, published in 1944, featuring hero/artist Gulley Jimson with a focus on the necessity of individual freedom and choice. I read this book in a 1976 college class where we also read Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange — the lit course focused on existentialism.
Why reread:  Most my college texts have lots of underlining on the pages. This one has virtually none. I feel like I missed the boat.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
This is McCullers’ first novel published in 1940 when she was 23 years old, featuring Mick Kelly, an adolescent modeled after herself. The dust jacket on the Modern Library edition says, “Mick’s spiritual kinship with John Singer, a deaf mute, and with other social misfits, provides a haunting look into the abyss encountered by human beings in their attempts at love.”  The book was made into a movie in 1968 starring Alan Arkin as John Singer.
Why reread: I remember the movie more than the book.

Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow
This Pulitzer Prize winner grabbed me in 1980, five years after its publication year, while I lived in Chicago, where the story is set. It earned a place on my 54 years, 54 books list of favorites, a story about Charlie Citrine whose life is in shambles and the gift that comes to him from friend Von Humboldt Fleisher.
Why reread: This one is closest to wanting to reread for the pleasure of re-experiencing the original immersion and joy that came from it. The real reason, though, is I’ve gifted this book a few times and the receivers didn’t like it. Anatole Broyard panned the book in a 1975 New York Times review. I can’t understand why. My critical mind wants to know.

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
Pynchon’s work is known for its complexity, including this one, published in 1966, a conspiracy story featuring protagonist Oedipa Maas, a California woman with a mysterious inheritance.
Why reread: This feels like I’m venturing into self-torture. The Oxford Companion to American Literature says Pynchon’s “novels present the reader a huge array of clues but not clear direction in their purposeful ambiguity.” Nevertheless, on a second time through, I want to see if I get it.

7 thoughts on “What books do you reread?

  1. This is such a good question. Perhaps I am a clinging, mauling sort of person by nature. But I love to reread books that transport some portion of my spirit to what I can only describe as the outskirts of eternity. So few do that, for me anyway. Once I read a book like that I lose my taste for the mundane world and then I want to keep returning to the book to be with the feeling it provides me. Books like Marilynne Robinson’s, Housekeeping is one of those sorts. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, is one. Of course, I wouldn’t be a truly psychotic person if I didn’t mention Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey, By Salinger. Jame’s Baldwin’s, first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain.

    Thank you for this post. I’m all stirred up now.


  2. I’m constantly resisting the temptation to re-read a book. These desire to re-read for me comes from the desire to relive the feeling of love I had the first time around. Also, like you, some I read when I was a teenager or college student and even if I liked it then, I fear that, perhaps, I didn’t fully understand it (example: Wuthering Heights in senior English. I loved it but I most definitely missed something).

    With your list, I’ve re-read The Crying of Lot 49, solely because I love that book and because I feel that I might have missed something the first time around.

    I think I might dedicate a month of my time to allow myself to re-read books. I also just have this driving response that there are so many new books or books I haven’t yet cracked, that I should be concentrating on them instead of old friends.


  3. I also always feel like I must concentrate on new books. I do slip in those not yet read, when I can, but then sometimes I have to abandon them to keep up with the new. An example is the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn. I had to stop after book 3, and I’m dying to get back to the final 2.

    I like your idea of dedicating a month to rereading. August comes to mind as perfect, right before the big publishing season. New books coming out always seem to slow down that month, as if in anticipation of the fall deluge.


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